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An article by Simon about a small part of the first leg of Equator journey - across Africa:

The Sunday Times travel section
August 20, 2006
Drunks with trunks
Alcoholic elephants, naked cyclists, lethal kites and £1,000-a-day car hire: getting to grips with Gabon isn't easy, but it's worth it
As an excuse for a late train, it was certainly more imaginative than blaming leaves on the line.
A herd of drunken elephants had wandered in front of the train heading towards Lopé, in the middle of the Gabonese jungle.
Four of the elephants had been killed, and the engine and two carriages had been derailed. The line was completely blocked.
The stationmaster sweated profusely in the equatorial heat as he explained the problem to our small group waiting on the Lopé station platform. “It’s the iboga fruit they keep eating,” he grumbled, apparently annoyed at the herd’s failure to obey railway regulations. “They get intoxicated and stagger around on our lines.”
I had been in Gabon with a BBC film crew for less than a week, at the beginning of a journey around the equator. We were all expecting endless problems while traversing the warm waistband of the planet. After all, the equatorial zone is home not only to the greatest natural biodiversity, but also perhaps the greatest human suffering.
Beyond Gabon, months of travel would take me through the Democratic Republic of Congo, scene of extreme violence, then across Uganda and Kenya to the lawless border with anarchic Somalia. Religious conflicts in Indonesia, fighting fishermen in the Galapagos, Colombia’s interminable civil war and the vast Amazon all beckoned ahead.
But thanks to the drunken elephants and a brush with a nasty disease, I nearly didn’t make it out of the starting blocks.
The trip had begun promisingly enough. French soldiers have helped keep Gabon relatively stable, while oil has made a few well-connected locals extremely rich. At one point in the 1980s, Gabon had the highest per-capita consumption of champagne, and the capital, Libreville, boasts casinos, musty hotels, busy beaches and a handful of handsome seafront buildings with a passing resemblance to those of Miami’s South Beach.
But the party is coming to an end. Supplies of black gold are dwindling, and Gabon’s President Bongo has decided to tap tourist dollars by exploiting other national assets. With gorillas, chimpanzees, hippos splashing in the sea, pristine rainforest and nearly 700 species of birds, Gabon is a paradise for naturalists.
Bongo has ruled Gabon since 1967, and Castro’s death will make him the world’s longest-serving leader. Absolute power clearly speeds decision-making. The president recently ordered that 11% of Gabon should be converted into national parks — almost overnight. It was a bold move: voilà! — Gabon is now being touted and promoted as the “Costa Rica of Africa”, an unspoilt high-end destination for wealthy ecotourists.
But Costa Rica has been welcoming visitors for years, and has been carefully building hotels and a tourism infrastructure. Gabon has a long way to go before it can claim to be African competition.
It’s not the basic tourist facilities that are the problem. Authentic travel experiences have their own charm. The main problem with Gabon — if my experience is anything to go by — is that visitors to the country risk endless bad luck.
I was desperate to get into the fabled Gabonese rainforest and find some gorillas for an Attenborough moment, but events continually conspired against me.
My troubles began before I even left Libreville. My phone, which had seen faithful service in the most demanding countries in the world, packed up. So did my producer's. One of our cameras and our backup phone went haywire. Money disappeared. I had a comedy moment stuck in a dilapidated hotel lift while metal groaned in a way I didn’t think possible outside Hollywood movies (how I laughed).
After two days in Gabon, I wandered out of my beachside hotel and a battered Citroën suddenly turned sharply and slammed into the thick wall right next to me, demolishing the front of the car — and the wall. The driver slid out of his seat, dusted himself off with a dramatic flourish and calmly walked into the hotel. “I’m fine, thank you, there is nothing to worry about,” he said.
I gave the car a wide berth as it began to smoulder, and hailed a taxi. We drove 40 metres before clipping another car. My driver had been distracted by a completely naked man carrying a bicycle into a shop. A kite-flyer later managed virtually to garrotte me as I strolled along the beach. I hope you get the picture. Weird things can happen in Gabon. Or, at least, they did to me.
I was relieved when we finally left Libreville and headed east, parallel with the equator, on the Transgabonais railway towards Lopé National Park, home to a large population of mandrills and several thousand western lowland gorillas. Surely my luck would improve.
After leaving the train at Lopé, we clambered into 4WDs for a journey into the rainforest, but were then turfed out and abandoned in the jungle when we refused to pay an extra £1,000 a day. Travellers in Africa are never immune to corruption or outright blackmail, but we naively believed a car-hire firm connected to the presidential family would be slightly more reliable.
Shrugging off another setback, we tried to view our resulting trek to the Mikongo camp, deep in the Lopé forest, as a bracing stroll. Researchers based at Mikongo are habituating lowland gorillas with the help of funding from visiting tourists. Finally, it was my chance to get into the jungle. We plunged into the forest, led by wiry tracker Donald Ndongo, and began to explore.
Lowland gorillas can wander several miles a day, so, in the dense forest, the odds of a sighting are not great. I didn’t even see their droppings. Between June and November, more than a thousand mandrills can congregate in the jungle, the largest non-human gatherings of primates anywhere. Unfortunately, we were there in April.
Gabon clearly offers both more and less than a standard safari. More, in the sense that, after trekking and sweating through the rainforest, there is the chance of genuine and spontaneous wildlife discoveries. Compare that with a traditional safari in South or East Africa, where you watch a bored cheetah on the open savannah, while sitting in a 4WD with honeymooners from Texas and Bavaria.
And Gabon offers less, in that most of the country is thick, green jungle, and you might only catch an arse-end glimpse of a mandrill or a gorilla heading in the wrong direction. In the rainforest there are no wildlife guarantees.
But tracking in the jungle is endless fun. Donald was a mine of information on trees that bled red, and plants used for fighting fever, while he clucked away noisily to alert gorillas to our presence. Pushing through the jungle was a challenge, but when we finally spotted and followed putty-nosed monkeys, it made the reward only sweeter.
Donald, whose father was a proud hunter (“Never a poacher,” he added quickly), explained how life was changing since the president decided to target wealthy tourists. Villagers who live in and around national parks have suddenly been banned from hunting in the forests. “It’s been a big shock for them,” he said. “We try to explain that it’s for the benefit of the country, but they need to eat, so they need to see the benefits of tourism quickly.”
Donald took us to the village of Makoghé, on the outskirts of the forest, where Jean Jacques, the energetic headman, has been struggling to hold his village together since the hunting ban. Jean Jacques has started organising traditional dances for paying foreigners and is appealing for tourists to visit. His message is clear: if you want us to stop hunting the wildlife, someone needs to provide us with an alternative means of putting food on the table. We paid a modest sum and thoroughly enjoyed their fourth performance.
After watching the dancing, I wanted to head back into the rainforest in search of wildlife, but I started to feel a little unwell and we decided to aim for the capital. The returning train was derailed by the drunken pachyderms, and by the time the line was cleared and we arrived back in the capital, I was feeling spectacularly rough.
Perhaps I’ve watched too many episodes of Casualty, but when I awoke during the night with a temperature of 40C and started vomiting blood, I suspected something was wrong. Diagnosed with malaria, I was treated with medicine derived from Vietnamese sweet wormwood, and was forced to halt my journey to recover.
I felt lucky to make it out of the country alive and would rather boil my testicles than risk returning. But Jean Jacques wants you to visit.
So go to the Costa Rica of Africa: trek, sweat and, with luck, you will spot some extraordinary wildlife before spending your money in the villages. Don’t let my bad luck put you off. After all, the people of Makoghé need you.
The author and broadcaster Simon Reeve presents Equator, a three-part journey around the world, starting on August 27 on BBC2 at 9pm
TRAVEL DETAILS: Gabon is best attempted with a specialist tour operator. Wildlife Worldwide (0845 130 6982, has a 19-day Best of Gabon tour, for about £4,395pp, ticking off Libreville, Lopé and Loango National Park. The price includes flights, accommodation, meals, guiding and all transport and transfers. It can also tailor-make shorter trips. Or try World Primate Safaris (020 8740 3350, or Green Tours (01298 83563,
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Equator - a long journey around the warm waistband of the planet
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Meet the Stans - Simon's long journey around Central Asia

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